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Dr Mathilde van Dijk: ‘Marian apparitions are potential threat to Church’s authority’

21 December 2011

Since 1800, the Virgin Mary has appeared more often than ever before: hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times. Whereas Mary used to like nothing better than to appear to a high-ranking man, women and children now have her preference. These are often somewhat marginal figures: poor, ill or with a history of domestic violence. In choosing them in particular as messengers, the Virgin is giving a voice to the voiceless, to those to who are not heard in church and society, says Mathilde van Dijk, lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Groningen.

Mathilde van Dijk
Mathilde van Dijk

Special gifts of mercy

Apparitions are part of Christianity, both in Catholicism and elsewhere. Van Dijk says, ‘When I recently gave a lecture, in mainly Protestant company about mysticism in the Middle Ages, people told me in all seriousness that they had seen angels.’ Visions are considered special gifts of mercy from God. For the Roman Catholic Church there is no doubt that Mary does actually appear every now and then. ‘The problem is that such visions can undermine the authority of the Church. The seer has, after all, a direct line to heaven and may therefore know more than a priest, bishop or Pope. From the early church onwards, there has therefore been an attempt to bring visionaries under control: their visions must be recognized,’ says Van Dijk.

Recognized and unrecognized visions

The recognition procedure is precisely set out, says van Dijk. ‘The local bishop is the one who decides. He first evaluates whether the seer is genuine and then instigates an investigation into his or her mental health. Finally, the crucial factor is whether the words of Mary are consistent with Catholic doctrine. Recognition follows if these criteria have been met.’ In 2002, for example, Bishop Punt of Haarlem recognized a series of apparitions to Ida Peerdeman from Amsterdam (1905-1996).

Conservative messages

The visionaries usually have Mary announcing conservative to reactionary messages. In the nineteenth century, she appeared to French seers and predicted that the Bourbons would soon return to the throne. Mary van Hoof (1909-1984) from Necedah in the US claimed that, shortly after the Second World War, the Virgin Mary warned her about a Jewish and communist conspiracy to achieve world domination. She later turned against the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which was considered progressive. Van Dijk says, ‘The Bishop of La Crosse had already forbidden Van Hoof from disseminating her visions in 1951 and he prohibited Catholics from coming to pray at the place where Mary had appeared. However, Van Hoof and her followers were not deterred. Up until today Necedah continues to be a place of pilgrimage for Catholics to the right of the Vatican.’

Subversive

Van Hoof’s behaviour is part of a trend, says Van Dijk. ‘Under the influence of the individualization of society, believers increasingly decide for themselves what is and what is not true.’ The British religious sociologist Linda Woodman sees this as the culmination of a long-term development in the history of Christianity that gained momentum after the Second World War. Van Dijk says, ‘Catholics are also less bothered about approval from the Church, whereas the Catholic doctrine prescribes obedience to priest, bishop and in the final instance to the Pope. They decide what you must believe. Going it alone represents a threat to the Church’s authority. This also applies to the behaviour of Marian seers, no matter how conservative their message is.'

Curriculum Vitae

Mathilde van Dijk (1958) is a lecturer in History of Christianity and Gender Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. She studied history at Groningen majoring in the history of the Middle Ages. She was awarded her PhD in 2000 for Een rij van spiegels. De heilige Barbara als voorbeeld voor religieuze vrouwen (A row of mirrors. Saint Barbara as an example for religious women). Her fields of interest include saints, mysticism, medieval and gender studies, and religious and gender studies.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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